My introduction to Malayalam cinema came in the form of a group dance performed at the annual day of my school in Madurai. Dressed like fishermen and fisherwomen, a few of my juniors danced to the song Kadalinakkare Poonore. I later learnt that it was from the critically acclaimed film Chemmeen—the first South Indian movie to win the President’s Medal for Best Film, in 1965. In those days, each South Indian state had its own acting icon—we Tamils had Sivaji Ganesan, Telugus flaunted Nageswara Rao, Kannadigas had Rajkumar and for Malayalis, Prem Nazir was “simbly the best”. Otherwise, for a Tamilian engrossed in Tamil movies, with a monthly dose of Hindi cinema (credit: R.D. Burman) during the ’70s, the brush with Malayalam cinema was only an annual affair—when some film from Kerala would win national honours, finding honourable mention in The Hindu.
For the average Tamil film goer, Avalude Ravukal (Her Nights) briefly became the template of Malayalam cinema—a tell-all movie about a young prostitute. Though it sensitively depicted the pure love between the woman and the hero, the bathroom scenes of Seema emerged as its sole selling point. Soon, I got introduced to two beefy heroes from the other side—Mammooty and Mohanlal. As the CBI officer unraveling a murder mystery in Oru CBI Diary Kurippu, Mammooty was so convincing that I could actually understand the film when it was dubbed in Tamil. Mammooty acted in half-a-dozen Tamil movies, including the political blockbuster Makkal Aatchi (People’s Rule) and as Rajinikanth’s best buddy in Thalapathy. Mohan Lal waltzed into my vision through the DVD route via Madras Mail, a murder mystery where he shared screen space with Mammooty. As an actor, he walked into my heart in Dasaratham, playing the rich bachelor who wants to be a father through the surrogate route. His unobtrusive body language and dialogue delivery often accompanied by that impish smile was brilliant. Mohan Lal also impressed with the musical Bharatham, and had emerged as Malayalam cinema’s most accomplished hero. Mani Ratnam introduced him to Tamil audiences through his classic Iruvar (The Duo).